December 7, 2018 | « back

BILLBOARD – James Taylor’s Self-Titled Debut Turns 50: A Track-by-Track Retrospective

By Morgan Enos

James Taylor spent his late teens in psychiatric hospitals and rehab facilities — but rang in his twenties at the feet of the Beatles. He’d been a troubled young songwriter with dim prospects in the real world, but raw talent with a guitar in his hand.

Back in early 1968, he caught the ultimate break: a try-out for the Fabs’ new label Apple Records. Sitting cross-legged in front of Paul McCartney and George Harrison, he wowed them with his love ballad “Something in the Way She Moves.”

Needless to say, Taylor passed the audition: his self-titled debut album was released 50 years ago today (Dec. 6).

Over a five-decade career, Taylor has been renowned for hits like “Fire and Rain” and his cover of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” — but had it rough early on. He was hospitalized for depression in his college years and developed a nasty heroin addiction that threatened to consume him.

But time was on Taylor’s side. Desperate to be heard, he looked up Peter Asher, who had made waves as one half of the pop vocal duo Peter & Gordon. One night, Asher got a cold-call from a “rather nervous-sounding American with a very pleasant speaking voice.”

He caught him at the right time; Peter & Gordon were no longer a going concern, and Asher had become Apple Records’ A&R man. He was impressed enough by Taylor’s demo to land him an audition with only an hour’s notice. (“I wouldn’t have slept for a week if it had been a week ahead,” he later recalled.)

Asher was floored by Taylor’s performance, and he called up the staircase for McCartney to hear him too. He and Harrison would join Asher in giving Taylor the seal of approval, and Apple handed him a contract.

Taylor had handful of heartfelt folk songs to his name, most pulled straight from his life history; “Knocking ‘Round the Zoo” was a humorous rave-up about his time in a psychiatric hospital, and “Carolina in My Mind” was a homesick ode to the Tar Heel State.

Despite the strength of the material, James Taylor’s production mostly reflects its era. McCartney and Asher brought in Richard Hewson to add strings, horns and harpsichords; his rococo arrangements threaten to subsume Taylor on his own record.

It turned out you didn’t need frilly production to appreciate this singular talent. James Taylor proved he could mix darkness and light into the same cocktail. “Like dust in the wind, you’re gone forever / You’re a change in the weather,” he sang in the autumnal “Something’s Wrong.”

Even in this youthful setting, he sounds wizened, as if he’d undergone enough brutal personal change to guide us through ours. Although he wouldn’t truly find his chops until classics like 1970’s Sweet Baby James and 1971’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, James Taylor introduced the world to his singular voice.

In honor of James Taylor’s 50th anniversary, here’s a track-by-track retrospective of the original album.

“Don’t Talk Now”
As a high school senior, Taylor was interred at the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. “Don’t Talk Now,” the first song anyone would hear from him, refers to his emergence from struggling with mental illness: “Where I’ve been, you don’t know / And what I’ve got, baby, it don’t show.” If Taylor is mum on the details, not expressing much more than wanting someone to shut their trap (“Don’t talk roads / Don’t talk sand / Don’t talk dust, don’t talk no man”), then Asher’s fussy baroque arrangement helps this harsh medicine go down.

“Something’s Wrong”
In a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone, Taylor described the motivation of an addict in his own words. “What the junkie is looking for,” he said, “is something that will be the same every time and that will completely supersede all other goings-on.” “Something’s Wrong” is a moody folk song about how depression and addiction affects our relationships. He convinces the song’s subject to walk out on his unhappy home altogether: “Take some bacon, go and leave your watch chain / She won’t count on nothing more.” Coming from a singer who had a monkey on his back, “Something’s Wrong” comes off as all too real.

“Knocking ‘Round the Zoo”
Just as James Taylor threatens to come off as overly dour and one-dimensional, we get this razzing, comedic jam. Barring Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized,” “Knocking ‘Round the Zoo” could be the ultimate jam about being locked away in an asylum. Taylor wrote “Knocking ‘Round the Zoo” about his own experiences at McLean Hospital, but it could be a lost scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. To boot, it even features a Nurse Ratched-style battleaxe: “She’ll hit me with a needle / If she thinks I’m trying to misbehave!”

“Sunshine Sunshine”
On this Victorian-sounding deep cut, Taylor explores the relative merit of “sunshine,” “laughter” and “smiling faces” before considering the opposite: “Things ain’t what they used to be / I say pain and rain / Illness in the family.” Hewson absolutely loads up this lesser track with weeping violins and plucking harps. The arrangement of “Sunshine Sunshine” could be the audio equivalent of James Taylor’s cover photo, in which the singer poses uncomfortably in an ill-fitting suit with a leaf on his lapel. Bells and whistles didn’t flatter him.

“Taking It In”
“Gravy, chicken and rice / Isn’t it nice? / Tell me the cost of food.” Who knows what Taylor, Asher or anyone else was thinking on “Taking It In,” a bit of fluff that rounds out Side A. McCartney and Harrison were recording the White Album in the same studio as Taylor; perhaps self-conscious about their proximity, he sings off-brand Beatle-isms. “What happens when it rains for eight days on your week off? / It’s all a matter of opening up your eyes and looking around.”

“Something in the Way She Moves”
Taylor recorded one of his greatest songs, “Something in the Way She Moves,” in the midst of the Beatles — but he would end up feeding their muse, too. Perhaps swayed by his solo rendition in the Apple offices, Asher and Hewson left well enough alone: the man and his guitar were all you needed for this stirring ballad. Famously, Harrison lifted the opening verse for a tune he was writing for his wife, Pattie Boyd; his resulting hit for the Beatles, “Something,” was one of his most elegant contributions to the band. From a single, shared verse, both men wrote their most evocative love songs.

“Carolina in My Mind”
In Timothy White’s 2001 biography Long Ago and Far Away, Taylor described his Chapel Hill, North Carolina, upbringing as “more a matter of landscape and climate than people.” With his father often absent for military duty, he led a solitary childhood in rural environs. He distilled those memories into “Carolina in My Mind,” a mellow Taylor classic that’s become an unofficial state anthem. He’s not just lost in the past — the lyric about the “holy host of others standing before me” shouts out McCartney and Harrison. Perhaps the signal got through; they respectively played and sang on this bittersweet song.

“Brighten Your Night With My Day”
A rather slight and commercial track, but at least it uses Asher’s production to facilitative rather than distracting ends. On “Brighten Your Night With My Day,” a soft brass part accentuates Taylor’s jazzy phrasings, even as he sings about natural phenomena seemingly at random: “Daybreak, sunset, hot and cold.” There’s appeal in this vaguely bossa nova song if you’re looking for it, but sequenced next to the stone-classic “Something in the Way She Moves” and “Carolina in My Mind,” it floats away like mist.

“Night Owl”
The Night Owl was a real club in Greenwich Village frequented by the Turtles and Lovin’ Spoonful; Taylor’s first band, the Flying Machine, appeared there often. The silly, disposable “Night Owl” is his tribute to his favorite haunt, where a “catfish tends to groove on the water” and a “monkey kind of flashes on fruits and bananas.” Though the blaring R&B backing wasn’t Taylor’s strong suit, “Night Owl” is a hoot.

“Rainy Day Man”
“I was addicted all the time I was recording the album on Apple,” Taylor admitted in Mark Ribowsky’s 2016 biography Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines. “Peter didn’t know I was on junk. I guess he just thought I was really sleepy or something.” That said, it’s hard to hear “Rainy Day Man,” a song from his Flying Machine days, as about anything but a dealer. It’s about having a “hole much too big to mend” that warrants giving the titular character a ring. Even if “Rainy Day Man” is just about a generic magic man, its lyrics about dependence ring true for Taylor’s situation.

“Circle Round The Sun”
This tune wasn’t written by Taylor at all, but belongs to the public domain. It’s his reading of “I Know You Rider,” a traditional blues song that lent itself to the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, Joan Baez and many more. While Taylor may have pulled it out of his back pocket as filler, “Circle Round the Sun” gives a flower-power sheen to this old blues number.

“The Blues Is Just a Bad Dream”
Any flashes of sunshine on James Taylor are short-lived, and “The Blues is Just a Bad Dream” ends Taylor’s debut on a dark, forbidding note. It starts with him comparing his psyche to a tree in his backyard, with the “branches all twisted / Its leaves are afraid of light.” He goes on over a skeletal 12-bar arrangement, with eerie strings: “That nightmare had come to stay with me, baby / My thoughts just don’t belong.”

Taylor’s addiction would remain lurking in the background; he wouldn’t fully kick heroin until 1983.

The uncharacteristically sunny music on Taylor’s debut belies his lyrics. On James Taylor, a great American songwriter faced down his demons on record. It would just take a few studio pros to brighten his night.